World stage: China's offer to Africa: pure capitalism

Colonialism is dead; long live colonialism. Just as the war in Iraq may be seen as the high water mark of US power, I suspect Tony Blair's Commission for Africa and last year's Gleneagles summit will be seen as the last gasp of the post-colonial order in Africa.

What follows may be a new colonialism, with the Chinese as latter-day imperialists, or, alternatively, Africa may come of age and take them on as equals, not exploiters.

In Africa, it is still assumed that the west is after the continent's mineral resources and untapped wealth - that the white man wants to exploit Africa for his own economic interest.

In fact, one of the tragedies of the post-colonial era was that western multinationals didn't think Africa was really worth exploiting, so there was little investment. The cost of doing business in Africa was too high, the profits marginal. Cheap raw materials became less important to western economies, cold-war alliances ceased to matter, and Africa lost both political and economic leverage. Back in the 1970s the Brandt report argued that underdevelopment in Africa would act as a brake on the whole world, but this turned out to be untrue. Africa was mired in poverty, but that didn't stop other parts of the world from getting rich. British policy in Africa is driven by post-colonial guilt not pragmatism - hence the Prime Minister's vision of the continent as a "scar on the conscience of the world".

All that is changing because India and China need Africa's raw materials to fuel their rapid development. As Robert Calderisi wrote in these pages last week, rising commodity prices have had more impact on Africa's economy than the aid pledges made at Gleneagles. Some African economies are growing by 5 per cent or more per year, on the back of Far Eastern demand for oil and copper and other minerals.

Africa has a second chance. Instead of allowing the Chinese to extract raw materials and ship them off with no added value, just as the Europeans did during the colonial era, they should strike bargains. The Zambian government could insist that some copper processing be done at home, so that local people and the economy benefit. Nigeria could work in partnership with Chinese oil companies moving into the Delta, so that wealth is redistributed.

China's ideological fervour is exhausted; poli ticians from the Middle Kingdom expend no energy on trying to persuade African countries to adopt their political or economic model.

By contrast, Europe and America - trapped in the post-colonial mindset - constantly try to remake Africa in their own image, with multi-party systems, elections and all the trappings of the post-colonial consensus. The Chinese are offering pure capitalism: willing buyer, willing seller. African governments can choose how to engage, and decide what economic advantage they can reap.

The problem, as ever, is the gap between African governments and their people. I first went to the Niger Delta in the 1990s, when oil was $10 a barrel. In Britain, anger had been directed against Shell, which was seen as complicit with the Nigerian government as it arrested and eventually executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, an activist who demanded that his Ogoni people should have a greater share of the oil wealth.

A decade on, a sevenfold increase in the oil price has done nothing for the Ogonis, the Ijaws and other Delta peoples, who are as poor as ever. Their beef is with a corrupt Nigerian elite, and they see western and Chinese companies as equally culpable in sustaining the system. According to Ndubisi Obiorah of the Centre for Law and Social Action in Lagos, militant groups in the Niger Delta issued threats against Chinese interests immediately after President Hu Jintao signed new agreements during his visit to Nigeria in April.

"We wish to warn the Chinese government and its oil companies to steer well clear of the Niger Delta . . . Chinese citizens found in oil installations will be treated as thieves. The Chinese government by investing in stolen crude places its citizens in our line of fire," wrote the spokesman for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a militant group that has previously kidnapped western oil workers.

China's public rhetoric is about solidarity and what used to be called south-south co-operation. "China steadfastly supports the wish of the African countries to safeguard their independence and sovereignty and choose their roads of development according to their national conditions," said the Chinese president, addressing the Nigerian parliament in April.

That was code for saying that the Chinese would not make investment conditional on anti-corruption measures and "good governance". African governments are delighted, but in the end such attitudes will not lead to a stable climate for investment, as the experience of the Niger Delta demonstrates.

In April, Bob Geldof woke up to the Chinese presence in Africa, commenting that if western governments didn't live up to their G8 promises, "China will be all over Africa . . . and they will embrace any government". Closer observers know that G8 promises make little difference. China is already in Africa. What matters is Africa's response. The Chinese can become the new colonialists only if Africans - governments and people - let them.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News